“You pick the place.”
Few things set me to trembling like those four innocent words. Whether it’s a high school friend visiting for a night or a few relatives in town for the weekend, we all end up getting saddled with the unenviable task of selecting a dinner spot. And it’s not always easy. Your grandma wants something quiet, your cousin wants something cool, your uncle wants something cheap—and you just want to get it over with.
There’s enough to be stressed about during the holidays without panicking over reservations. Sure, you could just head to Primanti’s and call it a day. But iconic though it may be, Pittsburgh has plenty more to offer.
That’s why we’ve drawn up this handy guide to dining out with out-of-towners. Read on for recommendations tailored to all the family, friends and long lost lovers visiting Pittsburgh this holiday season.
The Visitor: Your well-off parents/grandparents/mysterious benefactor—and they’re picking up the tab.
The Place: Eleven, Strip District
Why: What to do when someone else is paying but you’re picking the spot? You don’t want to choose the fanciest place out there or select somewhere with strange or fussy cuisine. Eleven strikes a perfect balance between formal and casual, bold but familiar. Chef Eli Wahl and his talented team create unique takes on classic American dishes, from crab cakes to strip steak. Located in a former warehouse in the Strip District, Eleven sits at the intersection of elegance and good old Pittsburgh grit.
More Picks: Spoon, East Liberty, Alla Famiglia, Allentown
The Visitor: Your Dr. Oz-obsessed aunt, who is avoiding a new food every time you see her.
The Place: Eden, Shadyside
Why: Though Pittsburgh food has an artery-clogging reputation, Eden provides a cozy haven for nearly any dietary preference. The entire place is gluten-free (good news for those concerned about cross-contamination) and almost 100% vegan. With a seasonally rotating menu heavy on inventive raw dishes and chefs sensitive to food allergies, Eden pays attention to the eaters that other restaurants ignore.
More Picks: Apteka, Bloomfield, B52, Lawrenceville
The Visitor: Your childhood pal, who still lives at home and is perpetually broke.
The Place: Noodlehead, Shadyside
Why: Noodlehead is no-frills—they’re cash only, the menu rarely changes, and they don’t even have a phone number. But unlike plenty of places that make the claim, they actually pass the savings on to customers. Their small menu boasts a mix of classic Thai dishes and house specialties like the Street Noodle #1, an addictive combination of fried chicken, rice noodles and an umami bomb of a sauce. And with a BYOB fee of a measly 50 cents, you’ll leave full and tipsy for less than 15 bucks.
More Picks: Taj Mahal, West View, The Dor-Stop, Dormont
The Visitor: Your gym rat brother, who wants heaps on heaps of meat.
The Place: Gaucho Parrilla Argentina, Strip District
Why: For the first two years or so that it was open, it was nearly impossible to get a seat at Gaucho Parilla Argentina. And now that the Strip District destination has tripled in size? Well, it’s still tough. But that’s a testament to just how good this Argentinian shrine to beef really is. Landing on Yelp’s Top 100 Places to Eat in the U.S. for the past two years, Gaucho cooks everything on a wood-fired grill, from blood sausage to flank steak—and even the occasional vegetable.
More Picks: Whitfield, East Liberty, Tessaro’s, Bloomfield
The Visitor: Your NYC/Chicago/LA friend, who still can’t understand why you’d live in Pittsburgh.
The Place: Max’s Allegheny Tavern, North Side
Why: You could try to wow a skeptical friend with any number of glitzy Downtown spots. But chances are that they’ll know a place back home that does it bigger or better. Instead, why not blindside them with somewhere that’s Pittsburgh through and through, of which no equivalent exists beyond our hills? Max’s Allegheny Tavern fits the bill. With old-school German food, friendly people and décor that looks like it’s been untouched for a century, Max’s is as classic Pittsburgh as it gets.
More Picks: Pierogies Plus, McKees Rocks.
The Visitor: A gaggle of relatives who want a restaurant that suits everyone, from your picky younger cousin to your snooty brother-in-law.
The Place: The Porch at Schenley, Oakland
Why: This is always a tough predicament—you need a place with a diverse menu, moderate prices and a whole lot of space. The Porch at Schenley nails it. Surrounded by universities, the Porch is prepared for large groups of all ages and stripes, with ample seating indoors and outside. The menu features plenty of safe bets, from a prime rib sandwich to a rotating selection of pizzas. But with lots of local produce and a rooftop garden, there are enough unique touches to keep everyone happy.
More Picks: Pamela’s Diner, multiple locations, Smallman Galley, Strip District
The Visitor: Your college roommate who’s a food trend hawk—she spends more time scouring Eater and Yelp than she does actually eating.
The Place: Morcilla, Lawrenceville
Why: Though I shudder at the word “foodie,” we all have friends who proudly embrace the label. And for a sure-fire bet to dazzle that friend, head to Morcilla. Though sister restaurant Cure continues to turn out world-class food, Morcilla is new darling of Pittsburgh’s food scene. Recently named one of Bon Appétit‘s Best New Restaurants for 2016, Morcilla excels at authentic Spanish tapas, charcuterie and drinks. With a menu ranging from single bite pintxos to huge platters of suckling pork roast, a spread at Morcilla will wow even the most jaded foodie.
More Picks: Pork & Beans, Downtown, Legume, Oakland
The Visitor: Your boozehound work colleague, who’s sweeping through for a night and wants great drinks to go with the food.
The Place: Independent Brewing Company, Squirrel Hill
Why: There are plenty of great breweries around town, and there’s a good chance they’ll have a killer food truck parked outside. But for a whirlwind chance to try the best of Western Pennsylvania beer, head to Squirrel Hill’s Independent Brewing Company. Despite the name, they don’t actually brew anything there. They do, however, dedicate all of their taps to the latest and greatest offerings from our region’s 50-plus breweries. Along with an impressive cocktail program and Chef Monique Ruvolo’s Middle Eastern-tinged bar food, the IBC is not your average neighborhood bar.
More Picks: Butterjoint, Oakland, Spirit, Lawrenceville
BrusselKale pizza at Piccolo Forno.The Visitor: A total stranger.
The Pick: Piccolo Forno, Lawrenceville
Why: Once in a while, you get asked to choose a place for someone you don’t know at all. Your dad’s old work buddy, perhaps, or a friend of a friend who just moved to town. In these situations, I can’t think of a more crowd-pleasing food than pizza. Though everyone’s got their favorite place for a pie, Lawrenceville’s Piccolo Forno hits all the right notes. It’s classy but affordable (being BYOB helps), and the atmosphere is lively and inviting. And if you happen to find some weirdo who doesn’t like pizza, the homemade pasta dishes are every bit as good.
More Picks: Dinette, East Liberty, Il Pizzaiolo, Mt. Lebanon & Downtown
Looking for more great restaurants? Check out the 16 best restaurants that opened in 2016.